The Curious Case of Phineas P. Gage

As a kid I was always fascinated with how the brain fully functioned and the role it plays in keeping our body in order. In 2018, scientist Helen Thompson traveled around the world in search of people with extraordinary brains. She encountered "Bob" who can vividly recount what happened over 40 years like it was yesterday. There was also "Sharon" who somehow loses navigational abilities and would occasionally get lost in her own home. I could go on and on, but there is a story that I would never forget during my behavioral sciences studies at University of
Nevada at Las Vegas.

This is the story of Phineas P. Gage (1823-1860). The content may be graphic to some.

Phineas P. Gage worked in the railroad industry as construction foreman. On September 18, 1848, Phineas was directing a work crew blasting rock to set up a railroad bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad. A freak accident occurred where a tamping iron 1.25 inches thick, almost 4 feet long, and weighing nearly 14 pounds went through his skull. The iron rod, in an upward direction, went through the left side of his face starting with the lower jaw, through the eye socket and exiting through the top part of his skull. The picture below gives a visual depiction of the accident.

What happened afterwards was equal parts fascinating and equals part unreal. Oddly enough, after just having an iron rod go through his head, he somehow managed to walk with little assistance and speak with some intelligence. When the treating physician Edward H. Williams drove up to him, he had the cognitive ability to mutter, "Doctor, here is business enough for you." How is this even possible? How is this guy not even dead? Keep in mind the limitations of 1800's medical sciences that can even successfully treat this type of wound.

Although Phineas lived only twelve more years after the accident, he opened the door for advancement not only in the medical field, but in the behavioral sciences as well. Of course, he had his challenges with his behavior and personality afterwards. What we know now about the relationship between the brain and our personality/behavioral can be directly attributed to Phineas. When you
have some time I would advise you to dive a bit deeper into his story.

What Phineas's story tells us is that our brain is a masterful organ that wields magical resources to redevelop and maintain our bodies in the presence of shock, pain, and any agent or organism that can disrupt our bodies normal flow. What happened that day on September 18, 1848 was nature's mighty showing of its recuperative powers.

The reason why I bring up this story is because every time I think I have it bad with life or anything, somebody out there has it worse. It reminds me to always be grateful no matter what. And if I treat my brain with a little tender, love, and care, I know some extraordinary things are coming. Let Phineas's story be your healing guide to whatever ails you. If he can do it, so can you and he had a lot less  to work with. 

Phineas P. Gage's skull and tamping iron is on display at the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

John Lam is a graduate of UNLV's School of Behavioral Sciences. When not managing this website, he enjoys watching sports and making drives to Las Vegas, Nevada, his second home. His favorite team is THE Ohio State Buckeyes College Football Team. Buckeye Nation What's UP!

1 comment

  • Candy

    This is truly an incredible story of how powerful our minds really are. Unlimited potential no matter what stage in life we’re at. Thank you for the message of the day.

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